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After Tree Theft, Anonymous 'Elves' Come to Kiwanis Club's Rescue

Thu, 12/16/2021 - 12:56
The East Hampton Kiwanis Club’s annual Christmas tree sale, started in 1989, raises money for student scholarships and other charitable causes around town.
Christine Sampson

The Christmas spirit is alive and well in East Hampton, though for a couple of days the Kiwanis Club wasn’t quite certain of that.

Earlier this month, the organization discovered the disappearance of between 60 and 70 Christmas trees from the American Legion Hall in Amagansett, where it is holding its annual sale to benefit children and charitable organizations around town. Upon hearing of the theft, a local family, who wants to remain anonymous, stepped up to help out. They had two truckloads of trees delivered to the American Legion grounds, restocking the club’s supply.

“It’s one of those things where you’re initially upset with what went on, and then all of a sudden, your mood can change 180 degrees,” Rick White, the club’s president for six years, said this week. “It was very uplifting. It kind of restores your faith in the community and people.”

When the missing trees were first noticed over Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. White said he didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that something nefarious had happened.

“My first thought was that somehow we messed up,” he said. “We did everything to say maybe it was our mistake. Maybe we counted wrong? We know that our tree number was correct. Maybe someone misplaced the money? We went through those scenarios. . . . By process of elimination, you say, ‘Something went wrong.’ “

So on Dec. 10, he filed a report with the East Hampton Town Police. The report was not available by press time this week. “It’s an active, ongoing investigation,” Detective Sgt. Daniel Toia said on Tuesday.

Mr. White said because each tree was valued at $100, the club would have been down at least $6,000. In addition to the anonymous donation of about 40 replacement trees, people have been stopping by to donate money. One Stop Market made “a substantial donation,” he said.

The charity tree sale, which was started in 1989 by Henry Uihlein, a former Kiwanis Club president, is manned only on weekends. On other days, the honor system applies: People who buy trees are supposed to leave their payment across the street with Brent’s General Store. The system was working well until the theft.

“This is the first time that’s ever happened,” Mr. Uihlein said on Monday.

The annual tree sale is one of the Kiwanis Club’s four major fund-raisers each year. Because of Covid-19, it has not been able to hold its winter dance or the Montauk Seafood Festival. A fourth, the Mercury Grand Slam Fishing Tournament, did take place as planned.

Even before the theft was discovered, the Kiwanis tree sale was suffering from a nationwide shortage of Fraser firs, Douglas firs, and other varieties associated with Christmas cheer. Primarily, it’s not even due to the pandemic, climate change, or supply chain issues, Mr. White said. The recession that began in 2008, spurred by a financial crisis and crash of the housing market, meant that that year, farmers planted fewer trees. That year’s crop would have been mature enough to harvest for the holidays in 2021.

“Many growers didn’t have the capital to plant a lot of trees, and national plantings dipped,” The Washington Post reported on Nov. 26.

Mr. White said the theft ultimately brought out the best in people. “They recognize what we’re doing,” he said. “It made the club feel good to see other people saw what was going on and wanted to help us.”

The group is also seeking donations of new, unwrapped toys to be distributed to local kids in need for the holidays, citing the financial impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on many families.

Through Dec. 21, people can drop off donations to several locations around town: M and R Deli and Herb’s Market in Montauk, Brent’s General Store in Amagansett, the Springs General Store and Springs Pizza, and the Clubhouse/East Hampton Indoor Tennis in Wainscott. In East Hampton, drop-off locations are the middle school, Village Hardware, One Stop Market, and the offices of the Corcoran and Brown Harris Stevens/Halstead real estate companies.

Donations of money are also welcomed, and will go toward buying additional gifts for the toy drive.

This year marks the 35th that the Kiwanis Club is holding its toy drive.

“It takes teamwork to make things possible,” Lou Profera, a club member, said in an email. “Our club is committed to being here for every family that has fallen on difficult times.”

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